Marshall McLuhan

"The medium is the message"

Alan Jacobs: I have come to certain conclusions. First, that McLuhan never made arguments, only assertions. Second, that those assertions are usually wrong, and when they are not wrong they are highly debatable. Third, that McLuhan had an uncanny instinct for reading and quoting scholarly books that would become field-defining classics. Fourth, that McLuhan’s determination to bring the vast resources of humanistic scholarship to bear upon the analysis of new media is an astonishingly fruitful one, and an example to be followed. And finally, that once one has absorbed that example there is no need to read anything that McLuhan ever wrote... In these circumstances, with so many ways to go wrong, I am tempted to suggest that McLuhan now be ignored — to argue that his greatest long-term value has been his ability to provoke people who are, if not simply smarter than he was, then more patient, methodical, and scholarly. McLuhan’s attempts to account for the general landscape of media are fragmentary and inconsistent; those of his friend Neil Postman, who in following McLuhan’s example virtually created the field of “media ecology,” are far superior in evidential detail and conceptual clarity. McLuhan’s interest in literary modernism, and especially in Joyce and Pound, yielded a few memorable apothegms; but his student and friend Hugh Kenner, inspired and directed by him, produced major, field-transforming work on both writers. McLuhan’s thoughts about oral and literate cultures, dependent largely on his reading of a few scholars of ancient oral poetry, lack historical grounding and intellectual rigor; but another of his students, Walter Ong, would make a great scholarly career specifying the lineaments of that historical transformation. The work of each of those scholars is far superior to anything that McLuhan ever wrote. So why not just read them instead of him?

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